A Republic, if we can keep it

Op-Ed by Samuel Young

The independence of the United States has had immense ramifications for the rest of the world. One aspect of this is the widespread popularity of Democracy and Republicanism. Before the United States, extreme hierarchies were the norm. Almost all countries were to some degree ruled by royal families and dynasties. Areas not traditionally ruled by kings and emperors were generally dominated by those that were. Those areas still free from tyranny were generally in that position because they were in some way isolated from tyrannical societies, as was then the case for some parts of Australia, the Americas, and Subsaharan Africa. 

Almost 250 years after the declaration of Independence, the vast majority of countries on the planet incorporate elements of Republicanism and Democracy. Even countries run by oppressive regimes still give themselves names like “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” or “Islamic Republic of Iran”. This is despite centuries of colonialism and in many cases direct opposition to the government of the United States. Clearly, there is something about the ideas the founding fathers of the United States came up with that has captured the imagination of people all around the world. People like Francis Fukuyama have seen the success of liberal Democracies and labeled the current period “the end of history”.

Those proclamations, in hindsight, were a bit premature. In the United States, the place of origin for this revolution, is now experiencing massive instability, movement towards tyranny and government control, and a crisis of confidence in voting. At least openly, few people take this to mean that Democracy itself is a failure. Rather, the current system is a failure in implementation. Whether that’s because of systemic issues stemming from the founding of the country or a perversion of the principles and systems that made it work in the first place depends on who you ask. What’s clear is that serious changes need to be made to our system in order for Democracy to survive.

Some people believe that markets hold a solution. In a way, markets are an extremely efficient form of Democracy. One phrase that comes up during discussions of societal change is “voting with your wallet”. The market ultimately responds to the needs and desires of people. If enough people are upset about the conditions farm animals are raised under, they can boycott companies that treat their animals poorly or even go vegan until the market is forced to adapt. If people don’t like the damage oil does to the environment, they can invest in solar panels and energy companies will either change to meet the needs of the people or fail. 

However, even without challenging the other assumptions this argument is based on, there is one major difference between how most people conceive of Democracy and how this type of market Democracy works. Namely, in our Democracy everyone gets only one vote. The president, the richest person on the planet, a homeless person, and you all spend a moment having the exact same amount of power at the voting booth. This means that in a well run Democracy, everyone’s voice is heard equally and the will of the people can determine the course society takes. On the reverse, some wallets are bigger than others. If a dollar is the same as one vote, some people have no votes at all. Others have hundreds of billions of votes. One percent of one percent of the people in the United States hold over ten percent of the votes. 

Believe it or not, a system like this has actually existed in the past. A major inspiration for our own system of government, the Roman Republic experienced many issues that may sound oddly familiar before its collapse into empire. Extreme wealth inequality and lack of opportunities for poor citizens of Rome led to populist demagogues promising redistribution of land and welfare for poor citizens in the form of the grain dole. Not only was the economic system stacked against the poor, the rich literally got more votes. In the Assembly of the Centuries, the rich would vote first and the poor very rarely even got the chance to vote. The Tribal Assembly was nominally more egalitarian and provided a chance for citizens outside of Rome to participate in elections, but in practice only the wealthy were able to afford the journey to the city from the Italian countryside, providing a systemic advantage for wealthy Italian landowners. The Plebeian Assembly was somewhat of a counterbalance to this, as only commoners were allowed to vote and votes were not weighted according to class. This is where most populist movements originated. 

Looking at this system, it makes sense why the Roman Republic collapsed. A majority of people had little to no representation and lived at the whims of the wealthiest citizens. Given the ability of wealthy citizens to generate massive private armies and donate their own private wealth to the poor, it was only a matter of time before the common people abandoned the superficial Democracy they had been given in exchange for more stability and guarantees of food and safety. Ultimately, the systemic empowerment of the wealthiest citizens allowed for the conditions where a collapse into tyranny was inevitable.

The conditions of the fall of the Roman Republic are far too complicated to fully account for in a short article. However, I think there’s something to takeaway from this brief analysis. Democracy cannot withstand high concentrations of wealth. If the government cannot meet the needs of the people, and people do not have the resources to provide for themselves, they will inevitably be beholden to whoever is willing and able to provide them the things that they need. If the majority of people are unable to support themselves, there will always be a majority of people who are dependent even when accounting for movement between classes. Whether it’s the government or a private individual who abuses that dependency, the result is the same. If we want to keep our Republic, we will have to do more than give the reigns of power over to the wealthy. What outcome should we expect of moving power from the ballot to the wallet? 

Categories: Politics

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